image: “Mapping the SS Concentration Camps,” Geographies of the Holocaust (Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano, eds.)
The complex realities of the Holocaust are now more than seventy-five years in the past. And yet the history, causes, and variations of this nightmare period have not yet been adequately understood (link). An excellent recent volume makes the case that social scientists — political scientists, sociologists, demographers, economists — potentially have much more to offer than they have done to date. In Politics, Violence, Memory: The New Social Science of the Holocaust, Jeffrey Kopstein, Jelena Subotić, and Susan Welch have assembled a rich collection of articles from current social-science research that illustrates the value that social science perspectives can bring to understanding the complex events that make up the Holocaust. (Here is an earlier post summarizing historians’ silence about the Holocaust following the end of World War II; link.)
The editors’ introduction provides an analysis of the incentives of the disciplines of the social sciences to account for the relative neglect of questions surrounding the Holocaust in political science, sociology, and demography in the 1960s through the 1980s and 1990s. The topic was likely to be considered an “area study”, far from the methodological and theoretical orthodoxies of the established social science disciplines. It was a “special case” and not amenable to the large-scale generalizations preferred by social-science methodologies at the time.
Within political science in particular, perhaps nothing illustrates the delay in taking up the Holocaust as an object of study more poignantly than the fact that the first panel in the history of the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association devoted entirely to the subject appeared in the program only in 2011. (p. 19)
What can social scientists bring to contemporary Holocaust research? A key underling theme that runs across many of the essays is the idea that we should approach the Holocaust, not as a single unified event, but as a series of parallel and geographically and nationally separated events and processes. Here is a formulation of this idea by the editors in their introduction:
Charles King elaborates on his idea that the Holocaust is best seen by social scientists as a series of events, shaped in large part by local actors attuned to their own circumstances and institutions alongside the state strategies of the occupying power. He also highlights the Holocaust as a product of interstate collaboration and competition, the dynamics of which greatly affected outcomes in different nations. (p. 30)
Here is King’s own formulation of the idea:
The macrohistorical phenomenon is so large and multilayered that a social science of it seems meaningless, or perhaps too meaningful. The Holocaust is thus best seen not as a single “case” but as a macrohistorical matrix of highly variable forms of mass killing, resistance, and survival. Recent work within Holocaust studies and an emerging literature offering social scientific insights on the Holocaust itself have revealed a vast field of variation—from the identity of perpetrators, to the possibility of resistance and survivorship, to the evolution of mass killing as state policy. (p. 43)
And Daniel Ziblatt summarizes this approach in his concluding essay in these terms:
Recently, historians have pushed back against this narrative with more fine-grained attention to local and decentered unfolding of events (Gross 2001; Bartov 2018). This volume represents a sustained effort of social scientists to join this conversation. This happens at a moment when not only social scientists but also historians have moved to the micro. At the core of this intellectual convergence is the proposition that the Holocaust is not simply to be thought of as a single “case” or “singular event” that occurred between 1933 and 1945, directed by the hierarchical German Nazi war machine. Instead, King (chapter 1) and the other authors suggest that the Holocaust should be conceived of as a process of (1) disparate events—mass killings, pogroms, forced migration, resistance, and survival; in which (2) multiple types of actors—perpetrators, victims, and bystanders— participated; all in (3) multiple locations—far from Berlin, and outside of German-directed concentration camps, and instead spread across the diverse landscape of both urban and rural communities in Central and Eastern Europe. (pp. 454-455)
The idea here is that it is valuable and insightful to examine the regimes of killing encompassed by the Holocaust at a range of levels — macro, meso, micro; geographical; bureaucratic/military/organizational; gender; and other dimensions as well. And contributors argue that this strategy of disaggregation permits comparison across cases that sheds light on the behaviors, capacities, and outcomes that were present in different locations — Lithuania, Hungary, or Denmark, for example.
This approach is similar to an important stream of research in historical sociology: comparative historical sociologists and new institutionalists who seek to understand the meso-level social arrangements that differentiate across apparently similar cases. This preference flows from an assessment of where the causal action is to be found: not at the grand level of macro-structures, but at the intermediate and contingent level of meso-level social processes and arrangements. It is a methodology that directs our attention to the social mechanisms through which outcomes of interest have arisen, and also account for the variations across episodes that we can observe. (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly make this point in Dynamics of Contention.)
The thrust of King’s chapter, echoed in many other contributions, is that we can fruitfully seek out causes of mass killings in the borderlands (Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania) by understanding the chronology, location, and population details of various episodes, and then engaging in careful comparison across cases to sort out what appear to be operative social influences (or what we might also call social mechanisms). How did mass killings by civilians vary across instances in ways that can be associated with factors like religious affiliation, existence of inter-group relationships, ideology, economic duress, and other factors?
This approach affirms that there were certainly macro-level causes at work — German state policy and military decision-making — but that these macro-level actions did not uniquely determine the outcomes. Both Eugene Finkel and Jeffrey Kopstein argue in their chapters for the importance of episode-specific factors in seeking to understand the ways that different locations displayed different patterns of resistance and mass murder. Kopstein’s comparison of the occurrences of pogroms in 1941 in Lithuania and Ukraine illustrates the point. He asks:
What, then, was the meaning of the pogroms of summer 1941? Why engage in these exercises in public humiliation and brutality? Let us return to the simple statement made at the outset of this chapter: pogroms occurred in less than 10 percent of the localities in Western Ukraine where Jews resided. In other places, pogroms either were stopped, in many cases by local Ukrainian heroes, or never got off the ground in the first place. What distinguished these two very different kinds of localities? (p. 180)
Jan Burzlaff’s contribution offers an historian’s appreciation for the importance of finding a level of analysis that is neither too general nor too particular:
The second chief benefit for historians stems, I believe, from the close attention that social scientists pay to variations, paving the way for a middle ground between law-like regularities and historians’ attention to specificity. It is a truism that the Holocaust unfolded very differently across various countries, regions, even cities—hence the importance of understanding both Nazi policies and social processes on the ground (Bloxham 2009). The combination of different scales of analysis not only allows for a more careful understanding of how local and communal factors played a role in the Holocaust’s unfolding, but also dismisses one-size-fits-all approaches to the origins and variety of Nazi violence and—above all—the absence of neighbor-on-neighbor violence in specific communities (Bartov 2018). (p. 100)
In addressing the facts of the Shoah, it is crucial for historians and social scientists to fully recognize the depth of the human catastrophe that the Holocaust represented. This is one reason why there has been a continuing debate over the question of whether it is ever legitimate to compare the Holocaust to other horrific instances of genocide (link). King addresses the issue of comparability in an appropriate way:
It is fully possible to accept the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a world-historical event while also fruitfully comparing each of its myriad components with their cognates elsewhere: the relationship between ideology and purposeful killing, the origins of genocidal state policy, collaboration and denunciation, the politics of military occupation, rescue and resistance, the dehumanization of noncombatants, the political economy of violence, and survivorship and the politics of memory, among many others. (p. 57)
The problem with this view is that it too easily glides over the ethics of comparison, the morality of “modeling” human suffering, and the ultimate purposes for which scholars willingly delve into awfulness. After all, the comparison of discrete human experiences is never a cavalier exercise, especially in the realm of violence, loss, and death. The systematic and thorough nature of Nazi practice still places the Holocaust in a peculiar moral category. Its scale was gargantuan. It involved the purposeful killing of millions of individuals as well as the extinguishing of an entire civilization—the culture of the East European borderlands rooted in Jewish religiosity and the Yiddish language. It flowed from an ideology that was not just distasteful but fundamentally abhorrent, one that marshaled science and history to condemn an entire human population to elimination—in theory, anywhere its members happened to live on the entire planet. It produced social, political, cultural, and economic consequences that are still unparalleled. The Holocaust can still be a moral category of one even when specific episodes of violence, the tactics of perpetrators and heroism of resisters, and importantly the social scientific patterning within this world-historical event turn out not to be unique. The sum of every massacre, pogrom, shooting, and gassing within the Holocaust still does not quite equal the Holocaust. (pp. 79-80)
Politics, Violence, Memory provides a valuable demonstration of the importance of confronting various aspects of the Holocaust using methods and theories from the social sciences. One can only hope that it will help to bring studies of the Holocaust into the mainstream of the social sciences. It is a vast and tragic reality that we have not yet adequately understood or internalized.
(Here are two other interesting and innovative contributions to new social science research on the Holocaust: Geographies of the Holocaust, edited by Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano, and Morality in the Making of Sense and Self. Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience’ Experiment and the New Science of Morality, edited by Matthew Hollander and Jason Turowetz (forthcoming).)